Thursday, June 5, 2008

Then & Now by James Cummins

After reading "Spoken Nervously By Torchlight to Angry Villagers," the first poem in Then and Now, I just had to read the whole book. Unfortunately, "Spoken Nervously" is an anomaly in this collection. There are a couple other good poems -- and by that I mean two ("Echo" and " Edmund Wilson and His Wife, Elena, Have Dinner with Edna St. Millay and Her Husband"). But mostly I felt the eagerness I felt wane, along with my patience, the more I read. I often found myself thinking, "If one of my undergraduates turned in this poem I'd be pretty impressed." Cummins employs a lot of rhyme in the poems in this book, and I give him props for doing it, but often the results are too expected. I like subtlety when it comes to rhyme. Cummins, well, not so much. He is also a poet who isn't shy about making grand proclamations like "You have a day, and then you have one more. / That's all there is. And it is enough" ("Practical Immortalities"). Not that such a thing can't be said in a poem, but after awhile it starts feeling more like a device and less like the divine. The first stanza of this poem, in fact, I like very much, though not as poetry:
A poem is a moment in a life
that stands for many moments, and goes on
in time, a partner in a dance, in love;
it doesn't conquer time, but slows it down,
so other moments can be lived in full.
I read this and thought, "Yes, this would be great to use in my creative writing class when we talk about what poetry 'is' and 'what it is for.'" I don't doubt that Cummins is acutely aware of these issues, though I do suspect he may be thinking too hard about them at times.

Spoken Nervously By Torchlight to Angry Villagers

Look, if there should be
life after death, I'll merely
be guilty of foolishness;

and if the sign of salvation
is truly a new car or house,
then I'm only to be pitied

in death as I was in life;
but if there should turn out to be
the phenomenon of grace,

different from the almost
unbearable beauty of the world,
and if it consists of God

letting me know for a brief
moment I'm not alone--
by putting a huge arm, say,

around my shoulders, or giving
a thumbs-up sign across
an amazingly if not

improbably large room--
all I can claim, as they angle
a needle in a vein and load me

into the van, is it's surely
the least of my problems
that I didn't believe.

(James Cummins, from Then & Now, 2004 Swallow Press)

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